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The Danger In Taking A DNA Test

Black Like I Thought I Was
From: "Andree Roaf"
To: "Afrigeneas"
Subject: Black Like I Thought I Was ~ (DNA related)

The danger in taking a DNA test . . . .

Black Like I Thought I Was

By Erin Aubry Kaplan, LA Weekly

October 7, 2003

Wayne Joseph is a 51-year-old high school principal in Chino whose
family emigrated from the segregated parishes of Louisiana to central
Los Angeles in the 1950s, as did mine. Like me, he is of Creole stock
and is therefore on the lighter end of the black color spectrum, a
common enough circumstance in the South that predates the
multicultural movement by centuries. And like most other black folk,
Joseph grew up with an unequivocal sense of his heritage and of
himself; he tends toward black advocacy and has published thoughtful
opinion pieces on racial issues in magazines like Newsweek. When
Joseph decided on a whim to take a new ethnic DNA test he saw
described on a 60 Minutes segment last year, it was only to indulge a
casual curiosity about the exact percentage of black blood; virtually
all black Americans are mixed with something, he knew, but he figured
it would be interesting to make himself a guinea pig for this new
testing process, which is offered by a Florida-based company called
DNA Print Genomics Inc. The experience would at least be fodder for
another essay for Newsweek. He got his kit in the mail, swabbed his
mouth per the instructions and sent off the DNA samples for analysis.

Now, I have always believed that what is now widely considered one of
slavery's worst legacies - the Southern "one-drop" rule that indicted
anyone with black blood as a nigger and cleaved American society into
black and white with a single stroke - was also slavery's only
upside. Of course I deplore the motive behind the law, which was
rooted not only in white paranoia about miscegenation, but in a more
practical need to maintain social order by keeping privilege and
property in the hands of whites. But by forcing blacks of all
complexions and blood percentages into the same boat, the law
ironically laid a foundation of black unity that remains in place
today. It's a foundation that allows us to talk abstractly about a
"black community" as concretely as we talk about a black community in
Harlem or Chicago or South-Central (a liberty that's often abused or
lazily applied in modern discussions of race). And it gives the
lightest-skinned among us the assurance of identity that everybody
needs in order to feel grounded and psychologically whole - even
whites, whose public non-ethnicity is really ethnicity writ so large
and influential it needs no name. Being black may still not be the
most advantageous thing in the world, but being nothing or being
neutral - the rallying cry of modern-day multiculturalists - has
never made any emotional or real-world sense. Color marks you, but
your membership in black society also gives you an indestructible
house to live in and a bed to rest on. I can't imagine growing up any
other way.

Wayne Joseph can't, either. But when the results of his DNA test came
back, he found himself staggered by the idea that though he still
qualified as a person of color, it was not the color he was raised to
think he was, one with a distinct culture and definitive place in the
American struggle for social equality that he'd taken for granted.
Here was the unexpected and rather unwelcome truth: Joseph was 57
percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East
Asian - and zero percent African. After a lifetime of assuming
blackness, he was now being told that he lacked even a single drop of
black blood to qualify.

"My son was flabbergasted by the results," says Joseph. "He said,
'Dad, you mean for 50 years you've been passing for black?'" Joseph
admits that, strictly speaking, he has. But he's not sure if he can
or wants to do anything about that at this point. For all the
lingering effects of institutional racism, he's been perfectly
content being a black man; it has shaped his worldview and the course
of his life in ways that cannot, and probably should not, be altered.
Yet Joseph struggles to balance the intellectual dishonesty of saying
he's black with the unimpeachable honesty of a lifelong experience of
being black. "What do I do with this information?" he says, sounding
more than a little exasperated. "It was like finding out you're
adopted. I don't want to be disingenuous with myself. But I can't
conceive of living any other way. It's a question of what's logical
and what's visceral."

Race, of course, has always been a far more visceral matter than a
logical one. We now know that there is no such thing as race, that
humans are biologically one species; we know that an African is
likely to have more in common genetically with a European thousands
of miles away than with a neighboring African. Yet this knowledge has
not deterred the racism many Europeans continue to harbor toward
Africans, nor the wariness Africans harbor toward Europeans. Such
feelings may never be deterred. And despite all the loud assertions
to the contrary, race is still America's bane, and its fascination;
Philip Roth's widely acclaimed last novel set in the 1990s, The Human
Stain, features a Faustian protagonist whose great moral failing is
that he's a black man who's been passing most of his life for white
(the book has been made into a movie due in theaters next month).

Joseph recognizes this, and while he argues for a more rational and
less emotional view of race for the sake of equity, he also
recognizes that rationality is not the same thing as fact. As much as
he might want to, he can't simply refute his black past and declare
himself white or Native American. He can acknowledge the truth but
can't quite apply it, which makes it pretty much useless to other,
older members of his family. An aunt whom he told about the test
results only said that she wasn't surprised. "When I told my mother
about the test, she said to me, 'I'm too old and too tired to be
anything else,'" recalls Joseph. "It makes no difference to her. It's
an easy issue."

After recovering from the initial shock, Joseph began questioning his
mother about their lineage. He discovered that, unbeknownst to him,
his grandparents had made a conscious decision back in Louisiana to
not be white, claiming they didn't want to side with a people who
were known oppressors. Joseph says there was another, more practical
consideration: Some men in the family routinely courted black women,
and they didn't want the very public hassle such a pairing entailed
in the South, which included everything from dirty looks to the
ignominy of a couple having to separate on buses and streetcars and
in restaurants per the Jim Crow laws. I know that the laws also
pointedly separated mothers from sons, uncles from nephews, simply
because one happened to be lighter than the other or have straighter
hair. Determinations of race were entirely subjective and imposed
from without, and the one-drop rule was enforced to such divisive and
schizophrenic effects that Joseph's family - and mine - fled
Louisiana for the presumably less boundary-obsessed West. But we
didn't flee ourselves, and didn't expect to; we simply set up a new
home in Los Angeles. The South was wrong about its policies but it
was right about our color. It had to be.

Joseph remains tortured by the possibility that maybe nobody is
right. The essay he thought the DNA test experience would prompt
became a book that he's already 150 pages into. He doesn't seem to
know how it'll end. He's in a kind of limbo that he doesn't want and
that I frankly wouldn't wish on anyone; when I wonder aloud about
taking the $600 DNA test myself, Joseph flatly advises against it.
"You don't want to know," he says. "It's like a genie coming out of a
bottle. You can't put it back in." He has more empathy for the
colorblind crowd than he had before, but isn't inclined to believe
that the Ward Connerlys and other professed racial conservatives of
the world have the best interests of colored people at heart. "I see
their point, but race does matter, especially with things like
medical research and other social trends," he says of Connerly's
Proposition 54, the much-derided state measure that seeks to outlaw
the collection of ethnic data that will be voted on in the recall
election next Tuesday. "Problems like that can't just go away." For
the moment, Joseph is compelled to try to judge individually what he
knows has always been judged broadly, to reconcile two famously
opposed viewpoints of race not for the sake of political argument -
he has made those - but for his own peace of mind. He's wrestling
with a riddle that will likely outlive him, though he doesn't worry
that it will be passed on to the next generation - his ex-wife is
black, enough to give his children the firm ethnic identity he had
and that he embraced for most of his life. "The question ultimately
is, are you who you say you are, or are you who you are genetically?"
he muses. The logical - and visceral - answer is that it's not black
and white.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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